Aaron Sherinian 28 Jan 2020 // 5:02PM GMT
Here’s a little secret about corporate transformation: It is not the same thing as change. The two concepts are related, to be sure, and often confused. But as communicators we owe it to ourselves, our tradecraft, our stakeholders and ourselves to understand what separates corporate change from true transformation.
Change is relatively straightforward – it’s quick. It usually involves a decision to start something or stop something. In the corporate communications world, that might involve a campaign, an employee outreach program, a product line or a new public relations approach in a new market.
Transformation, however, is more complex; it’s the response to the desire to change. And it’s often a multi-pronged response that requires many groups to work together, inside and outside the company. It’s difficult. It takes time. It requires an honest look at where a company’s message and purpose disconnect, and how they can come back together.
I’m watching this all come together at the frontlines of one of the most talked-about, fiercely debated and anticipated corporate transformations in recent history. At Philip Morris International (PMI), we are leading a transformation in the tobacco industry to create a smoke-free future. To do that, we are kick-starting a conversation about what it means to “unsmoke the world.” At the heart of this endeavor was a decision to speak frankly about the transformation underway. The company took a bold step: put the transformation itself upfront. The best option for every person is to never start smoking. For those who do smoke, we invite them to stop; but for those adult smokers who don’t quit, we want to replace cigarettes with better alternatives.
The transformation message we use in public mirrors what’s happening inside the company. It involves layers of work – none of it simple, but all of it working toward a goal that is good for society and good for the company.
If the plan was merely to change, PMI would have just added smoke-free products to the product portfolio and called it a day. Instead, our goal is ultimately that our smoke-free products will completely replace combustible tobacco products. That is, we are not simply adding alternative products to an existing assortment but changing an entire business model – to move away from manufacturing cigarettes by replacing them with smoke-free alternatives. This is harm reduction, and the success of a harm reduction policy can benefit adults who would otherwise continue to smoke, society and public health, our company and its shareholders.
Changing out a product portfolio is just the tip of the transformation iceberg, so to speak. PMI is essentially disrupting the business from the inside out. It involves transformation throughout complex global supply and value chains; it involves a transformation of the way a multinational company of tens of thousands of people operate; it involves transformation of a global workforce.
Given the complexities involved when a business is undergoing transformation, it should come as no surprise that communications are complex, too. As communicators, we live and work on the frontline, and we are expected to consistently inform, align and lead an organization through the uncertainties that transformation often stirs up. And we have to reach all audiences while we’re at it: business, consumer, internal, financial.
In our case, transformation has opened up opportunities that some of us have never before seen – to invite people from all walks of life into a crucial conversation: our people, smokers, the industry, regulators, NGOs, urban planners, technology experts, lifestyle gurus… The list goes on. The sheer scale of the endeavour has underlined one thing very clearly for me: communications cannot be an afterthought when a company is undergoing transformation. Here are six more lessons that stem from that realization:
Getting to the heart of the matter
Good communications has to be at the heart of a transformation in order to get it right. Our industry has perhaps the greatest potential of any to bring to light issues that need to be addressed, including those that demand global action. There is never a greater need to harness that power than when a transformation is in motion.
Answering the important questions
In order to be relevant and to empower those who are experiencing the transformation, there are three basic questions that must be answered. Those are: the “how,” the “why” and the “what.” Communicators often focus on the first two – explaining the reasons why and the ways in which something is supposed to happen are our bread and butter. But neglecting to explain what is actually supposed to happen will leave many feeling put upon and unmotivated.
Hold the judgement
An organization’s internal teams must be given a forum they can use to provide honest feedback about the transformation without fear of reprisal. This seems straightforward, but it can be more difficult than it sounds. A facilitator can be key in ensuring that workers are given a safe space to express their take on what’s happening – it is happening to them, after all.
Transformation isn’t monolithic
Especially in large organizations, transformation often happens in stages—and communicators must keep that in mind and segment their internal audiences, just as they do external ones.
Commitment is mandatory
In order to earn trust and buy-in from any audience, leaders must be fully committed to the transformation and the plan to get there. People can sense when their leaders are uncertain or not fully committed, and it creates doubt in their own minds at precisely the time when confidence in leadership and vision are of utmost importance.
Stakeholders are listening
In this 24/7 communications world, our audiences can be anybody. And what they should be hearing is authentic messaging. Authenticity helps build loyalty, internally and externally. Honest communications are the catalyst for real organizational transformation.
The word “transformation” is in my job title. To me, it signifies that we are engaging in a new way of doing business at PMI; it signifies that we have buy-in from the very top of the company; and it signifies that we are adopting a new sense of purpose. All of these are key to ensuring that transformation communicators do their job effectively.
I have come to learn that people who understand the difference between mere change and true transformation are those who are willing to communicate about it in a different way. They are willing to take criticism, try new approaches, play by the rules while busting old taboos. In this industry and those that want to survive and thrive in this new decade, so much depends on it. That’s a big task, but transformational communicators will be up to the task.